Coastal history in living color

Posted March 27, 2010, at 3:26 p.m.

There can’t be many people who grew up or live in midcoast Maine who haven’t a clue that the fishing and maritime industries built up and then changed their towns and cities.

Even Loretta Krupinski knew that, and she has lived in Maine for only a decade.

However, the extent of that buildup, and the breadth of changes, were surprising to noted children’s author and artist Krupinski as she researched her latest book.

What she found was an intricate web of industry, commerce and culture that she presents in “Looking Astern: An Artist’s View of Maine’s Historic Working Waterfronts.”

“Looking Astern,” which was released earlier this month, includes text about the state’s coastal history with 41 paintings illustrating the growth of fishing and maritime life.

Krupinski will present those paintings and discuss the book in a slide presentation at 1 p.m. April 3 at the Owls Head Transportation Museum. The talk is free and open to the public.

The book is divided into sections such as “Fish Tales,” “Granite and Limestone” and “Shipbuilding,” with old photographs and Krupinski’s detailed representational images to illustrate the text.

Some of the paintings are portraits of boats, while others depict a harbor or men at work in the industry.

There are also sidebars about a wide variety of issues such as the Kennebec ice trade, events such as a 1836 fire aboard a steamboat carrying circus animals, and navigational aids in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Now a resident of South Thomaston, Krupinski grew up on Long Island in New York and later moved across Long Island Sound to Old Lyme, Conn. It was there Krupinksi painted the old wooden ships on the sound, and perfected her painting techniques for clouds formations and water.

Krupinski had been visiting Maine for 15 years before finally moving here 10 years ago. With her interest in the ocean and life on the water, she collected books about maritime history and eventually had enough for a little library.

“I’m totally hooked on this stuff,” she said with a laugh.

“Looking Astern” was more than three years in the making and presented a number of challenges to someone used to working from real-life objects in front of her.

The biggest issue with which Krupinski dealt was painting from black-and-white photographs of an era during which people didn’t wear bright clothing and painted their homes white — and translating all of that into her color paintings.

“This was really a problem for me to bring in color somehow, and in some cases try and get the correct color of a building,” she said. “But now, believe it or not, it has made me work with color a lot better, because I’m not a slave to the scene in front of me or a color photo in front of me. I can bring my own artistic ability into these black-and-white photos.”

Krupinski said she didn’t take liberties with the photographs other than changing bad composition or eliminating elements that distracted the viewer from what was really going on in the scene. She thought of the photographs as vignettes of life on the coast, and tried to present them in that way.

“I felt like I needed to bring these people, this history, into living color and make it more permanent,” she said. “This [book] is all about the average person. … I wanted to bring in different facets and different places, to connect with the people who live in Damariscotta or Bath and bring it right into their own backyard.”

Krupinski set her scenes in an era from 1858 to 1948. She picked a stretch of the midcoast roughly from Belfast to the Bath area, but not only because of the active maritime industry on the coast.

“There are five rivers, all spilling out into the [Gulf of Maine], and there was great commerce because of those rivers,” she said. “There was shipping going up into Augusta, lumber and ice coming down, and all this helped promote industry. This part of Maine … has a lot of peninsulas, so there’s a lot of shore frontage in a small amount of space.”

Commerce moving up and down the rivers created myriad connections among the industries. As Krupinksi points out in her book, the fishing industry launched dozens of other industries in coastal towns.

“If you take fishing, for example, you needed boat builders, sail makers, chandleries, people to sail,” she said. “Then the fish were brought back and needed to be put into something, so you needed coopers to make barrels. Later on [the industry] got into canneries and now you needed to import cans and salt and preservatives. Wherever commerce was going on at the time, the spinoffs from that commerce were incredible.”

The on-land industry also sparked changes in the maritime industry, Krupinski said, as the shipping of ice and granite created new challenges for boat builders.

The advances in technology helped the industry grow, but we’re now feeling the effects, she said.

“Technology was so great for the fishing industry that now we have fishing concerns today,” Krupinski added. “It can be a double-edged technology sword.”

The connections among industries was what Krupinski wanted to highlight, and what she felt was lacking in other more scholarly books about maritime history which are not always accessible for the average reader.

“I did feel that there was almost like a void here, that people hadn’t a clue as to what went on here and how important and wonderful it was,” she said. “Maine sent out the most tonnage of ships in the whole East Coast. Who would know that? That’s something to be really proud of.”

“Looking Astern: An Artist’s View of Maine’s Historic Working Waterfronts” is $29.95 and can be purchased at www.downeast.com or at local bookstores.

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